From Cambodian and Central American spots to blue-collar coffee shops to brunch palaces, Long Beach’s food scene is one that the rest of Southern California doesn’t pay enough attention to — and that usually suits residents just fine.
But something different is happening with Ellie’s. Beloved local reporter Sarah Bennett deemed it Long Beach’s “first L.A. restaurant,” meaning a place in the LBC that Angelenos might actually drive to besides the cool airport and Fingerprints Music. The online-only Long Beach Post applauded chef-owner Jason Witzl for inspiring local “hoity-toities” — the homeless-hatin’ wannabe Newporters of Belmont Shore, the blue hairs of College Estates, Naples’ nouveau riche — to step “out of their insular existence” in a way no restaurant has done in a while.
Ellie’s has become such a point of pride for Long Beach boosters that Witzl recently announced a tasting-menu-only next door to open in the fall — and it’s already booked solid for four months.
Good for Strong Beach. But should the rest of us brave the city’s notoriously bad traffic and parking for a visit?
The bistro, with a cute patio, a split dining room, and a playlist that cuts the difference between KCRW and KROQ, is in Alamitos Beach, a charming, largely gay neighborhood chockablock with pre-World War II two-story houses and apartment complexes. The nightlife is good, the sidewalks filled with beautiful people walking their dogs at all hours.
Witzl, a Whittier boy who has worked at restaurants from Spain to L.A. (Campanile), delivers in the elegance and flavor department. His farm-to-table approach uses Asian and Latin American flavors to enliven its Italian foundation; the result comes off like a multicultural update of Evan Kleiman’s late, great Angeli Caffe.
The draw here isn’t the entrees per se but the sauces, spices and accouterments Witzl splashes and sprinkles on dishes with gusto to the point he has unfortunately referred to himself as a “condiment whore.” More brilliant is how he reflects the way we now eat in Southern California, where we bathe our leftovers in Sriracha, Tapatío, Trader Joe’s zhoug or Saddaf-brand harissa, depending on our mood.
The fermented Japanese citrus-pepper paste yuzu kosho serves as the spicy-tart base for Witzl’s most recent seasonal crudo, made of scallops and blood orange slices; it’s refreshing like an Aperol spritz. Egyptian dukkah — a pistachio dip — imparts nuttiness to roasted cauliflower; a fine salsa verde adds heat to his cavatelli and cuts the richness of the mixed-in chicken confit and guanciale. He smears a pear mustardo on a hefty, succulent pork chop, a bohemian lift for a workingman’s feast.
There is not a bad order at Ellie’s. The meatballs are airy despite being as large as a croquet ball; the dehydrated strawberries in his peppy burrata seem like a gimmick until they come to life, Pop Rocks-like, in your mouth. And in a city that swears by brunches, Ellie’s already offers one of the best, with twists on baked eggs and beans, chilaquiles and avocado toast seasoned with pecorino.
If there’s a disappointment about Ellie’s, it’s that Witzl has the talent but ultimately offers no real step forward in the Southern California food scene. The menu, packed with pastas, salads and grilled vegetables, seems geared toward locals who want to eat in their comfort zone.
He shows flashes of originality in dessert via corn cakes smothered in vanilla and chocolate gelatos and fermented strawberries, baptized with a dulce de leche drizzle — like a mestizo strawberry shortcake. Witzl should do more of this, instead of just tweak the tried-and-true that dominates the rest of the menu.
Any reticence on Witzl’s part to flex makes sense — Long Beach’s high-end dining scene is still embryonic. Only in this decade have places like Michael’s on Naples, Thomas Ortega’s Playa places and Panxa Cocina opened to offer a buzzy reason to eat in the city.
Maybe Witzl’s tasting concept will reveal his real game.
In the meantime, the best time to visit Ellie’s is right at 11 a.m. on a weekday, when it opens for lunch and Alamitos Beach is off to work. The menu features all the greatest hits of dinner, along with a sturdy burger and an even better eggplant sandwich that shines with mint pesto and pickled onions. The place is usually empty; you can dine with ease.
Otherwise, parking around Ellie’s is worse than L.A.’s Koreatown. Can’t the city give Witzl a valet subsidy instead of trying to court the Anaheim Angels?
Location: 204 Orange Ave., Long Beach; (562) 437-4837 https://ellieslbc.com
Prices: Appetizers, $9-$15; tacos $2.50-$4; pastas, $15-$19; entrees, $24-$36
Details: Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Horrible parking. Dining room and restroom are wheelchair accessible.
Recommended dishes: Seasonal crudo; any pastas; corn cakes for dessert